New signs posted by the town this week at Fresh Pond, Menhaden Lane and Shell Beach warn each is “Not a Bathing Beach.”
Is that enough to satisfy the Suffolk County Department of Health Services? Its edict was that Shelter Island had to post “Swimming Prohibited” signs.
“I don’t know,” Health Department spokeswoman Grace McGovern said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “Our inspectors go out and they’ll probably go out there,” she said. Whether they’ll judge the signs sufficient to satisfy the state’s requirements, as the health department interprets them, remains to be seen, she said.
“It’s not strong language like ‘Swimming Prohibited,’” she said. Until this week, Ms. McGovern had said the department would insist on that language.
The Health Department warned the town in March that those three sites do not legally qualify as public beaches and the town must not encourage swimming at any of them even though both Islanders and visitors have been swimming at the sites for generations. And the county and town have clashed over it several times over the years.
The last major crisis over the public’s use of Menhaden Lane as a beach erupted in the late 1970s, when neighbors complained that people parking there and using the beach were camping out in front of their houses, using their bushes to relieve themselves, and trespassing. Eventually the town limited parking at the road end to people with town parking stickers, a restriction that remains in effect.
What started the latest hullaballoo was a March 23 letter to the Town Board from Nancy Pierson, senior public health sanitarian in the Bureau of Marine Resources, a division of the county Health Department, warning that unless “swimming prohibited” signs were posted, Shelter Island could be subject to heavy fines for every day that violations occurred. Those fines could be as high as $2,000 per incident, per day, although Ms. McGovern said in April, she thought fines would more likely be in the $500 range.
The beaches came to the county’s attention after resident Vincent Novack complained about the use of the Fresh Pond town landing as a bathing beach. During an inspection, county officials noted a similar practice at Shell Beach and Menhaden Lane.
Ms. Pierson’s March letter instructed the Town Board not to provide any amenities such as bathroom facilities, picnic tables or lifeguards at any of the sites without seeking state and county approval. Councilwoman Chris Lewis said last month that there was no money in the budget to provide such amenities and that it was difficult enough to hire enough lifeguards for the town’s two public beaches — Wades Beach and Crescent Beach — much less to find additional lifeguards.